Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army

By Jeremy Scahill. Nation Books, 452 pp, $33.50, hardcover

For centuries they were called mercenaries, but that's such an ugly word, loaded with the dead greed of killers for hire. The PR optics are terrible. Much better to be "security consultants" or "civilian contractors", terms favoured by the slew of private companies whose heavily armed employees now patrol and often shoot to kill in ruined places such as Iraq, where they are present in numbers as great as those of the U.S. military itself. With expensive Washington lobbyists helping them score millions in government contracts, the people running these firms are entrepreneurs of the first order, free of the bureaucratic meddling that limits the conduct of regular soldiers and finding opportunity where others see only chaos.

Take the Virginia-based firm that is the subject of Jeremy Scahill's unnerving exposé, Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. When Blackwater USA was launched in 1998 by the former Navy SEAL and fundamentalist-Christian millionaire Erik Prince, it was a plucky little company supplying firearms training to police forces. But since then, as Nation contributor Scahill recounts, Blackwater has converted spectacular tragedies into profits. The bombing of the USS Cole in 2000, widely attributed to al-Qaeda, convinced the U.S. Navy to award Blackwater a US$35 million contract for "force protection" training. And 9/11 set up what Scahill calls the "jackpot", turning the company into a major recruiter of retired special-forces soldiers for highly paid work on all fronts of the Bush administration's then-popular "war on terror". Between 2001 and 2004, Blackwater's revenues quadrupled every year, and by 2006 the company had pulled in some US$111 million in federal funding, which it has used to buy a fleet of 20 aircraft and pay the salaries of some 2,300 private soldiers deployed in nine countries around the world.

Blackwater's success can mainly be attributed to its business model, which is nicely aligned with an official push started in the late '80s under then secretary of defence Dick Cheney to privatize vast segments of the U.S. military. As Prince himself once explained: "Our corporate goal is to do for the national security apparatus what FedEx did to the postal service." And he has every reason to feel that his company is well-suited to thrive in this era of shadowy, indefinite war. After all, not even FedEx can match Blackwater's perfectly circular business model: the very condition that creates demand for the company—violence—is identical to its product.